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Managing Students’ Behavior During Remote or Hybrid Learning

Tips for teachers in an uncertain time

Writer: Grace Berman, LCSW, and Allison Dubinski, LMSW

Clinical Expert: Grace Berman, LCSW, and Allison Dubinski, LMSW

en Español

Handling behavior challenges in the classroom can be difficult at the best of times. This fall, all the changes and uncertainty of the pandemic make things even tougher.

We’re here with guidance for teachers on how to reduce classroom behavior issues like not following directions, defiance and outbursts, and advice to help improve your relationship with students who are acting out. Most of these tips apply whether you’re in a physical classroom or a virtual classroom, and they can even help smooth out transitions between the two.

Set clear expectations

You can get ahead of behavior problems before they start by setting clear classroom expectations and referencing them frequently. You might feel like your students already know the drill, but clarifying rules and expectations helps avoid misunderstanding or misbehavior while increasing cooperation, compliance and positive behavior. This is especially important with so many new rules around things like masks and social distancing.

Some easy strategies for making expectations clear include:

  • Posting (or screen-sharing) visual classroom rules. Refer to them before all classroom activities, whether online or in-person. Keep in mind that as expectations change at different points in the day rules may need to shift as well— it’s okay to have different sets of rules, as long as your students understand what they are and know when they’re coming. Include opportunities to discuss the rules and see them modeled, as well as practice time to get used to any new rules.
  • Prepare your students for transitions. For example, before a change in activity, begin with a 10-minute warning: “In 10 minutes, it will be time to move on to writing.” Then provide a 5-minute warning, and finally remind your students when there are 2 minutes left before the transition. It also helps to use a visual timer to make things even more predictable and let your students get emotionally ready for that activity change.
  • Use “when/then” statements to clarify expectations. For example, you can say to one student: “When you complete your math assignment, then you can take a 5-minute break to draw.” This works for bigger groups, too: “When the class finishes the math assignment, then we’ll dance to a GoNoodle.” It’s helpful to remember that alternating between study and something more enjoyable keeps motivation high.

Rely on routines

Sticking to clear schedules and routines is especially important during this time of change and uncertainty. You want to try to provide as much structure and predictability as possible for your students.

Starting early and being consistent can go a long way in promoting compliance. Take time at the beginning of the school year to rehearse new classroom routines with students, like your socially distant morning line-up routine. The time you invest at the start of the year will pay off in quicker follow-through during the rest of the year.

Creating a clear visual schedule will also help students feel prepared for the school day. Some students might struggle with sudden changes to that schedule, so it’s important to give as much warning as possible when changes come up. When students know what’s coming it can reduce defiance and outbursts.

It’s helpful to verbally review the schedule at the beginning of each day and have it posted in your classroom so students are really clear on what to expect.

For online learning, the same is true. It’s helpful to go over a daily schedule to structure students’ learning environment and promote assignment completion. A clear schedule is also helpful for parents for monitoring their children’s learning at home.

Use selective attention

Positive relationships are built on positive interactions, and there are several ways that we can promote positive relationships with our students by directing our attention. Your attention is a very powerful tool as a caretaker and educator.

The foundation is regularly providing positive individual attention to your students. It can be as simple as talking to a student about their interests or making a positive comment about something they did: “You did such a great job explaining the reading!” As adults, we often find ourselves correcting misbehavior to discourage it from happening again. But your intervention might actually have the opposite effect because your student may learn that if they do that behavior, they are going to get your attention.

If you see this in your classroom, it’s helpful to use selective attention. First, you want to identify the positive opposite of the misbehavior. For example, if the problem behavior is calling out, the positive opposite would be waiting for your turn to speak. So in that case, when you observe your student raising a quiet hand to answer a question and waiting patiently, you acknowledge that behavior by praising it immediately and specifically. That’s something we often call labeled praise. You might say: “Fantastic job waiting for your turn to speak.” Letting kids know you appreciate their behavior will make them feel good and when they know exactly what behavior they’re being praised for, they will be more likely to do it again.

In addition to providing labeled praise to the behaviors we want to see more of, we want to actively ignore minor misbehaviors that are reinforced by our attention. For example, ignoring a student who’s calling out, even if it’s really annoying you. The idea is to deliberately withdraw your attention until you see the positive opposite behavior occur. This helps teach your students that you will give attention to the positive and desired behaviors.

Provide choice and autonomy

A lot of times, defiance is about seeking control. We see more bids for control from kids when things seem uncertain and out of control, like they do now. This can show up as an increased need for students to feel like they are “in charge” of their lives, and sometimes it leads to an uptick in pushing back against rules and expectations at school. When students are given a lot of commands, then they don’t feel like they have autonomy. That’s when they tend to rebel, especially older students.

Providing small moments of autonomy can help students to feel more respected and make them more likely to follow through on the commands that you do give. One way to put this into action is by providing two choices instead of giving a command. For example, rather than saying, “You have to do this math worksheet now,” you can say: “You get to decide today. Do you want to start with Part A of the worksheet or Part B of the worksheet?” Or maybe: “Do you want to use a pencil or a pen to do the worksheet?” It’s a subtle way of giving them control while still getting them to do what you’re asking them to do. The key is to keep it to just two options, both of which you are okay with.

Increase motivation and engagement

Even though school looks a lot different this year, the basic principles we use to engage our students have generally stayed the same. A big part of that is setting up a rewards system based on classroom rules and expectations. Here’s a reliable process you can use to do that:

  • Determine how students will earn points toward a reward. For instance, in a remote learning scenario you can have the entire class work on sitting quietly and staying on screen, and then they can earn class-wide points when everyone displays that behavior.
  • Make it clear which rewards students can earn. Rewards are a tangible way to give children positive feedback for desired behaviors, and they work best when the child can choose from a variety of things that work both online and in-person. Try putting together a list of privileges like watching a short movie, getting show-and-tell time with the class (screensharing works for online classes!, earning a special role for the day like being the “rules reader,” or playing a game like Simon Says or charades.
  • Use labeled praise and describe positive behaviors. We talked about labeled praise as a way of directing your attention and building relationships, but it can also increase engagement and motivation. If you note out loud that two of your students turned on their video cameras, you’re not necessarily praising it directly, but by simply describing what you’re seeing you are reinforcing that positive behavior with your attention.
  • Build momentum. Start with demands that are easy for students to comply with, and praise them when they do. It’s important to provide labeled praise for each small direction followed, one at a time. Then when you have momentum, state the command that’s more challenging. For example, you may have a student who frequently refuses to complete math assignments. First you would provide one or two direct commands where compliance is likely: “Please pick up the pencil near your foot” followed by “Great job listening!” Then you can move on: “Please complete question 1 on the math assignment.” Slowly build up to the commands you want them to follow.
  • Provide lots of opportunities to respond. Keeping a quick pace and allowing for more verbal and nonverbal engagement will increase student attention, on-task behavior and overall engagement. This could look like:
    • Rather than using the traditional raised hand, require all students to respond. To agree or disagree with an answer your students can all respond at once by giving a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
    • Have all students write their answers down on a personal whiteboard (or in the online chat) and hold it up when they’re finished.
    • Break down more complex questions and allow multiple children to answer different parts of the problem. This gives ample opportunities for kids to respond and succeed, while also giving you a lot of great opportunities to reinforce with positive labeled praise or behavior descriptions.

Use effective commands

The fewer commands that you give, the more likely it is that students are going to comply with them. When you do give a command, here are a few tips to make them more effective:

  • Provide context. If a friend told me, “Give me your computer please,” I would be hesitant to hand it over. But if they provided context by saying, “Give me your computer please, I need to quickly look something up and mine isn’t working,” I would be a lot more likely to follow through. Kids are the same way. Giving them information about why you’re having them do something will help them feel more respected and better understand why it’s important to follow through.
  • Tell students what to do — not just what NOT to do. You always want to give a replacement behavior. This is going to clarify exactly what they should be doing rather than just taking something away. For example, rather than saying, “Stop running,” it’s more helpful to say: “Please walk.”
  • “Catch” compliant behavior. Labeled praise goes a long way in helping students listen and reduce disruptive behaviors. After students do what you say, you can respond with something like, “Thank you for following my direction right away.” That will strengthen that behavior and promote further compliance, even with children who tend to be defiant.

Model enthusiasm and flexibility

As we jump into the school year, there are still so many unknowns that it can be hard to remember to how important it is have fun. Remember to express joy and excitement as you interact with your class. Telling jokes, pointing out beautiful moments, silly things, or even just smiling when you greet your class in the morning. The more fun you’re having, the more engaged your students will be.

Enthusiasm will continue to promote positive relationships throughout the school year, even if our day-to-day isn’t consistent. Now more than ever, it’s so important to be that model for students of how we can positively cope through challenging times. For example, if you get an unexpected schedule change, show your students that it’s not the end of the world: “I know we just got this change in our schedule. That’s a little stressful. Let’s all take some deep breaths together.” That kind of modeling can support social-emotional learning and strengthen your bond with your students.

This article was last reviewed or updated on October 30, 2023.